Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Phoenix Residence, 1976

Early Lessons

This is one of my first projects, designed in 1976, before I became a landscape architect. I used to use this project to start off lectures because it was such a dramatic change made by a few bold strokes. This was a simple front yard make-over but there were several lessons I learned from it. The most important lesson is that you make your own projects.

This client’s only requirement was to add 3 foot tall masonry columns spaced 8 feet apart with a chain hung between them along the sidewalk to keep children from cutting across the corner of his property. I said if you are willing to spend that much money why not consolidate the masonry into something that would have more value and affect the way you live by creating a usable outdoor space.

I drew the sketch showing 3 new elements:

A new 3 foot high courtyard wall that created an entry courtyard.

The silly 2 foot high wall that was just in front of the house was raised a foot higher to give it some purpose and make it part of the courtyard.

Finally, the ramped side walk that curved to the front door was replaced with a new sidewalk and steps that emphasized the vertical climb to the house from the street.

To exaggerate this the excavated soil was built up against the far end of the courtyard wall and held down at the new walk level to make the courtyard wall 4 1/2 feet high on the outside next to the walk. I was quite worried about this wall height because the building code only allowed a 3 foot high wall in a front yard and I was concerned that I would be paying for new steps if the city rejected the courtyard wall height. The inspector never said a word about the height, which encouraged me to push my luck on following projects.

Another lesson is the client can tell you what they want and your job is to say I understand what you want but this is what you need. To say this you need to understand the problems and opportunities of the site. It seemed that an ambivalent client is an open check book to do what you want. Even when working with a sophisticated client you must absolutely solve all clients’ program requirements which is the easiest part of the process; the hard part is refining the design to make it art.

I tried to create a native looking landscape but the nursery industry wasn’t ready for my projects yet, it took plants from 4 continents to mimic the native landscape for this garden. To make the gardens I wanted it was necessary for me to collect seeds of native plants and have them grown for my projects.

The house is three feet above the sidewalk.

Preliminary design showing entry courtyard

After this was built I noticed that the scorelines of the sidewalk were misaligned with my new walk. This is something that I didn't think of when I was doing this and it has bothered me for the last 30 years. Design is about edges and how one material meets another and here I didn't consider the sidewalk as part of my design. This never happened again.

Another example of making your own projects was the entry to Arid Zone Trees Nursery. The client asked me to just design an entry gate to their farm and after much thoughts and scribbles I came up with my ‘homage to Barragan’ entry design that garnered me a national ASLA honor award. This ‘little entry gate’ has been published in several countries and Phase 2 of this project won a second National ASLA award.


  1. Happy to have found your blog while looking for gardeners & landscapers with a similar climate to ours here Texas. Water conservation is a focus of mine, & I'm curious if you've worked with clay pot irrigation & have any feedback. I have been reading about clay pot irrigation vs milk jug watering, & it seems that the milk jug is gravity fed, so only waters until the jug empties out. What can you tell me about clay pot irrigation? How does it water?

  2. I can see how you have added your own touch into it while also keeping in mind the requirements of the clients! a very beautiful and proper use of the free space! it adds an omph factor to the house! love it!

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